Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Charlotte/Douglas International (KCLT), North Carolina: Push for airport authority worries city

Charlotte officials are concerned about rumored proposals to turn Charlotte Douglas International Airport from a city department to an independent authority, similar to what happened last year at Asheville’s airport – against that city’s wishes.

Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy said a proposal to take the airport from city and county control and place it under an independent authority blindsided her when it appeared in the state legislature two years ago.

“They didn’t have to talk to the city,” she said. “Out of nowhere, we had a bill introduced.”

The former airport board and local state legislators supported the legislation. Bellamy and other local leaders opposed the proposal, but it passed last summer.

Now, Charlotte officials are worried about the same scenario playing out locally. Mayor Anthony Foxx said Monday he believes there is currently an effort “in the backrooms of Raleigh” to remove control of Charlotte Douglas from the city by creating a new aviation authority to run it.

One of Charlotte Douglas’ deputy aviation directors visited Asheville’s airport recently, and discussed the transition, Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority spokeswoman Tina Kinsey said. “A variety of topics were informally discussed, and (Asheville’s) transition to an independent airport authority was part of the conversation,” Kinsey said.

An independent aviation authority would join the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority, independent boards that oversee the city’s tourism-oriented buildings and the Carolinas Medical Center system.

Foxx and other officials say chatter about a new aviation authority is increasing. It’s an idea that current aviation director Jerry Orr has said he supports.

Foxx said he included a reference to the airport authority in his “State of the City” speech Monday to “throw down a marker,” saying he objects to any movement to remove city control.

But the mayor and other council members say they aren’t certain who in Raleigh is pushing the idea. Foxx said he’s concerned that a new airport authority could be created “at the midnight hour,” without city input.

Hands-off Approach

Under the current system, Orr runs Charlotte Douglas, and reports to the Charlotte city manager and City Council. His most recent boss, former city manager Curt Walton, retired at the end of last year.

The city generally takes a hands off approach to the airport, giving Orr large leeway in making decisions. But there has been some tension recently, according to city officials familiar with the relationship between Orr and city staff. One of the biggest flashpoints was a city decision last year to transfer control of airport security from Orr to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.

Under an authority, the aviation director would instead report to an independent board made up of a mix of local appointees. The board, not city council, would have the ultimate say over the airport’s actions.

Should that happen, the city’s finances would likely not be affected. The airport is operated as an enterprise, which means it is funded with fees from the airlines, concessions and parking, as well as federal grants. The airport doesn’t take local tax dollars, and the city isn’t allowed to use airport revenues to pay for services outside the airport.

Orr wasn’t available for an interview Tuesday. In a statement sent to the Observer, he said it was “ not my place to advocate for an Airport Authority.”

In previous interviews, Orr has said he supports the idea of making the airport an independent authority, but isn’t pushing for it himself. An independent authority would provide more effective oversight than the City Council, Orr said, because the council has other responsibilities.

“They have a lot of things on their plate. They simply can’t focus for any length of time on the airport, ” Orr said. “This is a business, and it needs to be governed like a business.”

US Airways, which accounts for 90 percent of the daily flights at Charlotte Douglas, said in a statement that it has “no position” on whether the city or an authority manages the airport. Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber, said his organization hasn’t discussed an airport authority.

Interim City Manager Julie Burch is against an airport authority. “As I have shared with Jerry, I would not propose or support changing the Airport from a City department to an authority,” Burch said in a recent email to council members.

City approval not needed

The General Assembly could create an authority for Charlotte/Douglas without City Council approval.

State officials made a similar change at Asheville’s airport last year, passing a bill that transferred ownership and control of the airport from local city and county officials. Many in Asheville opposed the move, which they said would hurt local rule and not fairly compensate the city for investments in the airport.

The General Assembly in Raleigh would have to approve the creation of an airport authority, said Norma Houston of the UNC School of Government. The legislature would determine how the authority is funded, how the board members are appointed.

The local delegation would likely look to the city of Charlotte to see if it approves of the plan before introducing any legislation. But the City Council’s approval isn’t necessary, Houston said.

“Legally and constitutionally, local government input isn’t required,” Houston said.

One Mecklenburg legislator doesn’t support creating an authority.

“We don’t need to fix something that’s not broken,” said State Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat. “It’s an economic generator for the city and the region. It’s well managed. To toy around with it is crazy.”

Charlotte unique

Charlotte is somewhat unique among large cities in that its airport and transit system are both city departments – not authorities. Many other airports are run as authorities, including Raleigh-Durham, with a mix of public officials appointed by different boards.

In Asheville, the airport had previously been administered by a quasi-independent board appointed by the city and Buncombe County. The bill passed last year created a new, fully independent board with members appointed by the city, two counties, and the board, and mandated ownership of the airport be given to the authority.

“I think it’s wrong,” said Bellamy. “I just don’t think local governments should have to give up assets.”

Bellamy said she fears local governments will now receive less information about what’s going on at the airport, and won’t be able to plan as effectively. She said the relationship between the city and the new independent board is eroding.

But Kinsey said the authority model gives the airport more flexibility to buy land and develop facilities, and is “a natural next step in the life of a growing airport.”

In Charlotte, two government-created authorities have wide power. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority was created in 2004 to market the city and manage city owned buildings like the Charlotte Convention Center. The City Council and mayor appoint CRVA board members.

For most of the CRVA’s history, the city took a hands-off approach, allowing tourism officials to operate freely. But in 2011, Mayor Anthony Foxx and some council members withheld CRVA funding until the board demoted then chief executive Tim Newman.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospitals Authority is a public, tax-exempt agency created by state law in 1943. It oversees some 30 hospitals with $7 billion in revenue. The agency has faced criticism for a lack of transparency about its activities.

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